The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has yet to distribute funding to the winners of its Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) Phase I auction, but that isn’t stopping Charter Communications from getting to work on rural coverage expansion projects.
This week the operator handed Gibson Technical Services a contract to handle construction for its RDOF projects in Alabama, Louisiana and North Carolina. The award includes 8,600 miles of “full-service construction”, which a Gibson representative told Fierce includes aerial construction, underground construction, fiber placement, placement and activation of power supplies, fiber optic cable slicing and testing. Work is set to begin “immediately” and continue over the next five to six years, Gibson parent company Orbital Energy Group said in a press release.
In a statement, Orbital CEO Jim O’Neil called the contract “a transformative project for GTS,” adding it “supports OEG’s ongoing strategy of providing industry leading engineering and design solutions to the telecom industry.”
The Gibson representative declined to share additional details about its deal with Charter.
Asked about whether the operator plans to award additional contracts for RDOF projects, a Charter representative told Fierce it is "making strong progress in terms of both in-house project leadership and contract labor for our RDOF buildouts, but we don't have any specific announcements to share right now."
Charter was the second-largest winner in the RDOF auction, scoring $1.22 billion in funding in December 2020 to boost broadband coverage across 24 states. It won $51.3 million to cover 56,451 locations in Alabama; $29.5 million to connect 25,389 locations in Louisiana; and $142.1 million to reach 128,509 in North Carolina. None of the three aforementioned states were listed in Charter’s recent request for a waiver of redundant coverage commitments in a handful of states.
The operator previously explained in February the RDOF money will be used to partially offset a $5 billion investment to expand rural coverage in the 24 states where it won funding. At the time, it stated plans to hire 2,000 employees and contractors to support its buildout effort.
Speaking at an investor conference in May, Charter CEO Tom Rutledge noted the rural nature of the locations it aims to cover could make construction a bit harder. He specifically pointed to workforce and permitting issues, stating “getting a labor force in the markets where we’re going to be is going to be difficult. The skillsets don’t exist.”
Charter’s decision to award a construction contract to Gibson comes despite uncertainty around when the FCC might begin doling out RDOF funding to auction winners. Two key U.S. Senators recently pressed Acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel for details about when and how it will distribute funds, giving her until July 29 to respond.
This story has been updated with a comment from Charter Communications.